12/23/2005 1:00AM

Dreams abound on opening day

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ARCADIA, Calif. - One day after Christmas, there is one more gift to open - Santa Anita. The 86-day winter racing season begins Monday with optimum conditions - full fields, competitive races, and a forecast for warm weather and fast footing. The meet begins with high hopes, which in Southern California happens only twice a year.

"There are two meets we look forward to - Del Mar and Santa Anita," said trainer Bob Baffert.

Hollywood Park lost its turf course at the autumn meet that ended a week ago, and the result is an inventory of fresh turf horses

bursting at the seams. Four of the nine races at Santa Anita opening day are on grass.

While the Grade 1 , at seven furlongs for 3-year-olds, is the richest race Monday, the primary focus of the meet will be on the Derby hopefuls for 2006. And even this early, horsemen do dare to dream.

"You do, a little bit," said trainer John Sadler. "But if you have a 2 turning 3 that can run, you're allowed that. This is where you want to be positioned going into the start of the year."

Sadler's hope is the talented colt Cindago, who was runner-up first time out in a fast race and the logical favorite Monday in race 6 for maidens.

The Santa Anita winter program for 3-year-olds covers both genders. Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Stevie Wonderboy and BC Juvenile Fillies winner Folklore are scheduled to return in January. Stevie Wonderboy's initial West Coast objective is the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 8, and Folklore's is the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks on March 12.

"It's a good program for 3-year-olds and 3-year-old fillies," said Folklore's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, adding that 4-year-olds and 4-year-old fillies have stakes series of their own, the Strub Series and La Canada Series, respectively. "That, and the weather . . . you don't have to fight the elements. The only knock has been the racetrack, and it looks like that is straightened out."

Acting on the perception that the dirt track was hard and causing an inordinate number of injuries, Santa Anita owner Magna Entertainment Corp. brought in East Coast trackmen to consult with track superintendent Steve Wood. Changes in harrowing and watering procedures have produced a slightly slower and kinder surface during workouts. Initial reviews from horsemen have been mostly positive.

It is anyone's guess whether the track surface will favor a particular running style Monday, when first post is noon. There are three stakes opening day, including the Malibu, race 8. The field is led by East Coast shipper Attila's Storm, fourth in the BC Sprint before winning the Fall Highweight against older at Aqueduct; Wilko, the 2004 BC Juvenile winner; comebacker Greeley's Galaxy, winner of the Illinois Derby; sprinter Thor's Echo; and turf stakes winner Osidy, who is trying dirt for the first time.

In the $125,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes (race 3), Da Stoops stands out against six other Cal-breds racing seven furlongs. Da Stoops finished second last time in the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue, won by Your Tent or Mine.

The $100,000 Sir Beaufort for 3-year-olds at a mile on grass was split into two divisions. Race 2 includes Chinese Dragon and Santa Anita Derby winner Buzzards Bay; race 7 includes graded stakes winner Eastern Sand.

The $1 million Santa Anita Handicap for older horses will be run March 4. The short list of Big Cap candidates includes Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and two-time Grade 1 winner Borrego.

Even at the short distance of seven furlongs, the Malibu can impact the handicap division at two turns. Rock Hard Ten won last year's Malibu, then won the Grade 2 Strub Stakes and Big Cap. Rock Hard Ten won last year's Malibu rallying from dead last, and this year's Malibu could unfold with a lively pace that would flatter Wilko. Wilko is 3 for 16 lifetime and still trying to validate his Breeders' Cup Juvenile win in 2004.

For the third straight year, Doug O'Neill will start more horses at Santa Anita than any trainer. And for the third straight year, O'Neill will send out a live Malibu contender. Marino Marini finished second at 33-1 in 2003. O'Neill ran two-three-four last year with Lava Man, Harvard Avenue, and Perfect Moon. Monday, O'Neill entered speedster Diligent Prospect and stakes winner Thor's Echo. While O'Neill said seven furlongs may be Thor's Echo best distance, Thor's Echo is compromised by the inside post and a ton of speed to his outside.

The Malibu is the first leg of the Strub Series for 4-year-olds of 2006, but Attila's Storm will not stretch out for the San Fernando or Strub. Attila's Storm, who finished third in the maiden race run on opening day of the 2004-2005 winter meet, emerged as one of the top sprinters on the East Coast this fall and enters the Malibu after a game win in the six-furlong Fall Highweight. He enters the Malibu with three successive Beyer Speed Figures that exceed the 104 Malibu par.

The knock on Attila's Storm is distance, and seven furlongs in a race loaded with speed could prove his undoing. Trainer Richard Schosberg said Attila's Storm will continue to run in sprints. Pat Valenzuela rides.

The Malibu has 13 wagering interests, including a two-horse entry owned by B. Wayne Hughes - Greeley's Galaxy and Osidy. Both enter with question marks. Illinois Derby winner Greeley's Galaxy has not raced since the Preakness, and Hughes said he is concerned Greeley's Galaxy may need the start. Osidy has never raced on dirt, but has trained well over it.

One reason Osidy entered the Malibu is to further establish himself as a future stallion prospect. A son of Storm Cat, Osidy is a graded stakes winner on turf. The Malibu will be his first start on dirt, and Mandella said, "He hasn't given us any reason not to try it."

DATERACEPURSE
Dec. 26Malibu Stakes$250,000
Jan. 28Sunshine Millions 
 Classic1,000,000
 Filly & Mare Turf500,000
 Sprint300,000
Feb. 4Strub Stakes300,000
March 4Santa Anita Handicap1,000,000
April 8Santa Anita Derby750,000
April 23San Juan Capistrano250,000